PROVINCETOWN — Larry Kramer is still fighting the good fight — and ticking off his enemies and critics. He just can’t do it as loudly as he used to. As a notoriously combative writer and the most prominent AIDS activist of his generation, Kramer is a man whose default setting has always been eye-bulging outrage. But these days his fulminations and temper have been reduced to whispered laments and quiet resignation by age, health woes, and hearing loss.
Yet don’t mistake his softened voice and gentler demeanor for a loss of pugnaciousness. After all, this is the man who led the rallying cries in the ’80s and ’90s to increase funding for AIDS research and accelerate government approval of drug treatments. At 80, Kramer still fires off irate e-mails to friends and foes (just ask playwright Tony Kushner, with whom he feuded over Kushner’s script for the film “Lincoln”), and he certainly doesn’t believe he’s mellowed.
“I hope not,” he says. “I still have a little fire in the furnace. I may talk softer, mainly because my hearing aids amplify everything, but I’m just as angry. I’m glad. Anger is the great motivator, and I consider it a positive emotion. We have a lot to be angry about, and I wish more of us were.”
During a visit this month to the Provincetown International Film Festival, where a new documentary about his life, “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” was screening before its Monday premiere on HBO, Kramer spoke about his outrage over stalled research for an AIDS cure at the National Institutes of Health; his ambivalence over gay men taking Truvada to prevent HIV infection (“It certainly has a validity. But you shouldn’t use it as an excuse to go back to living the kind of life that got us into all this trouble in the first place”); and what he sees as complacency in the current gay rights movement.
“We must not pat ourselves on the shoulder with the gay marriage successes. It’s going to be in the courts forever, the same way that abortion has been chipped away, case after case. And there’s still terrible discrimination going on,” Kramer says. “You’ve got to never stop being an activist — every day of your life — and that’s exhausting. It doesn’t come easily to a lot of people, but it did to me. So I’m grateful for that.”
These days Kramer has a lot to be thankful for. Indeed, he’s had the kind of triumphant year professionally that many writers can only dream of. Not only did the film adaptation of his landmark 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” a semiautobiographical account of the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, premiere to much fanfare last May, but Kramer was greeted with a standing ovation at the Emmy Awards after the film won for outstanding television movie. (He’s also penned a “Normal Heart” sequel that director Ryan Murphy and HBO are hoping to produce.)
In April, Kramer’s long-gestating, 775-page magnum opus, “The American People, Volume I: Search for My Heart,” a novel he started more than 30 years ago, finally hit bookstores. And this week, HBO broadcasts the documentary that chronicles Kramer’s life story, directed by longtime friend and fellow activist Jean Carlomusto.
But Kramer, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, almost didn’t live to see it all come to fruition.
Over the past couple of years, he was hospitalized for several long stretches with intestinal problems, and he says he came close to dying a few times. Yet Kramer persevered, as he has done for most of his life. He was close to death in the late ’80s but survived thanks to experimental treatments from doctors, including his longtime nemesis-turned-friend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In 2001, suffering from end-stage liver failure and awaiting a transplant, Kramer was infamously pronounced dead in an erroneous Associated Press headline.
“I have thought about death a lot over the last year or two, and I’m certainly not ready to die,” Kramer says. “I still have things I want to do, but I do feel that I’ve used myself well.”
When Carlomusto first expressed a desire to make a documentary about Kramer, he initially dismissed the idea, even though the two were friends whose relationship dates to their days in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), two advocacy groups that Kramer cofounded.
“I said, ‘There’s something so final about a documentary. I’m not dead yet. I still got work to do.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m going to make it whether you want me to or not.’ ”
The film traces Kramer’s life story — from his troubled youth and volatile relationship with his father, to a suicide attempt at Yale, to his close friendship with his brother, Arthur, which was tested many times over the years. It chronicles the decade he worked in the film industry in London, and the 1978 publication of his controversial satirical novel “Faggots,” which criticized gay men for what Kramer saw as an unhealthy obsession with sex and drugs over lasting love. The film moves through the fearful days when AIDS first surfaced as “the gay cancer”; his ouster from the leadership of Gay Men’s Health Crisis; the grass-roots success of ACT UP; and his contentious relationship with Fauci, who credits Kramer and ACT UP with changing the way the government tests new drug regimens.
Sheila Nevins, HBO Documentary Films president and executive producer of “Love & Anger,” visited with Kramer frequently during his hospitalizations, and the two became close.
“Larry was an education in anger. Not misspent anger, but anger with purpose,” she says. “I’ve been with him so many times when people have come over and said to him, ‘You saved my partner’s life.’ ‘You saved my son’s life.’ ‘You saved my life.’ And suddenly you realize that you’re sitting with someone who really rattled the cage, someone who made a difference.”
Kramer has been criticized as self-righteous and self-aggrandizing, for lacking reason and perspective, and for picking fights that he won’t back down from. His scorched-earth approach has sometimes ruptured relationships with close friends, allies, and supporters.
“I’m used to operating on my own if I have to,” he says. “When I wrote ‘Faggots,’ it made a lot of people angry. One of my best friends was a character in the book and very funny. But the minute it came out, he wasn’t a friend anymore.”
When “The Normal Heart” had its victory lap last year, more than a few people remarked that Kramer’s pronouncements about the swelling AIDS epidemic were prophetic. Despite his warnings to politicians, the media, and the medical community in those early days, he doesn’t care about vindication.
“I don’t think I did anything that anybody else couldn’t have done,” he says. “I just spoke out. I have a voice and an opinion, and that’s how you fight back — by getting that voice heard somehow.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail